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The Closest You’ll Ever Get to Being in Space

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The entire Orion Nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in visible light. Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

Being a student of Imperial College has a few perks. Our campus is on the same road as three of the biggest museums in London: the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and the Science Museum. Not that you get much time to visit them when you have days full of lectures, seminars, tutorials and lab work…. but that’s another story. The lovely people at the Science Museum also let Imperial students into their IMAX cinema for free (provided it’s not the school holidays — but, trust me on this one, you do not want to be around South Kensington in half term anyway).

At the start of the summer, in that weird time between finishing exams and getting my degree result, I had a bit of time on my hands, so decided to take advantage of my soon-to-expire ID card and head to the Science Museum to see a film called Hubble 3D.

Hubble 3D (warning: elaborate website intro) is a breathtaking film and watching it is probably the closest most of us will ever get to being in space. The film focuses on the efforts of seven astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis who are tasked with repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. The crew on the servicing mission did on-site repairs for two of Hubble’s instruments: the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and, best of all for us lot stuck on the ground, an IMAX 3D camera was there to capture it.

But my favourite part of the film was made using images taken by Hubble itself. Narrator Leonardo DiCaprio takes viewers on a journey from Sirius, one of the closest stars to Earth and the brightest in the night sky, to inside the Orion Nebula. The Orion Nebula is located just underneath Orion’s belt in the constellation of the same name, and is visible with the naked eye. It’s a huge cloud of gas and dust, 24 light years across, in which stars are forming. Luckily for us, super fast wind from the young stars has blown a cavity in the side of the nebula facing Earth — so Hubble can peer right inside and see the stellar nursery in action. Hubble has even seen protoplanetary disks forming within the Orion Nebula — these disks are believed to be the starting point in the formation of planetary systems like our own solar system. One hundred and fifty protoplanetary disks have been found, suggesting that planetary systems are more common in the universe than we previously thought.

Without further ado, here’s that part of the film. It’s 2D (obviously) but still captures some of the magic of the 3D IMAX version, especially if you choose the highest resolution your computer can handle and watch it in full screen.

There’s also a video explaining how Frank Summers and hiscolleagues at the Space Telescope Science Institute took black and white 2D images taken by Hubble and turned them into 3D colour objects that the viewer could travel through. It’s interesting stuff, and doesn’t spoil the first video at all — I promise!

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Persagdomoxx 3:57 pm 10/30/2011

    Great article. What an extraordinary journey this would be and what a brilliant way to present the possibility of traveling to the stars. Thank you for sharing this.

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  2. 2. Jatchat 11:10 am 11/1/2011

    Amazing

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  3. 3. Kelly Oakes in reply to Kelly Oakes 5:40 pm 11/7/2011

    You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by.

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